What’s the Best U.S. Airline?

The Points Guy website lays out the case for each of the four largest U.S. airlines as being the best carrier to fly: for American Airlines, for United, for Delta, and for Southwest.

Reading the arguments, some stronger than others, a clear message comes through: the best airline depends on where you live (who offers the best service) and what you value (fewer fees, better inflight internet).

The Case for American Airlines, How Does It Hold?

JT Genter argues for American because:

  • High speed inflight internet though Delta offers this too.

  • More premium economy seats than competitors they’re ahead of other airlines with rolling out this cabin, though they’ve taken business class seats out of Boeing 777-200s and Boeing 787-8s while United has been adding business seats to aircraft and Boeing 777s are configured 10-abreast in coach while Delta gives coach passengers more room at 9-across.

  • Top tier elites get first class lounge access on oneworld partners access to Qantas’ first class lounge in Sydney, Cathay Pacific’s Wing and Pier is a nice perk.

  • Improved lounges American’s Flagship Dining is probably the best offering in the U.S. (not North America, Air Canada’s Signature Suite in Toronto is better). However United Polaris lounges trump Flagship lounges, and Delta Sky Clubs are better than American Admirals Clubs or United Clubs.

  • Earn elite qualifying dollars with oneworld partners this is a differentiator from United, but not Delta.

  • Upgrades complimentary domestic for 75,000 mile elites and above, and Executive Platinums get at least 4 confirmed international upgrades a year. This really isn’t a differentiator though United and Delta offer complimentary domestic upgrades to all elites and Delta offers top tier elites confirmed international upgrade certificates valid on lowest fare. United is the laggard requiring minimum fare for international upgrade – which is a problem because you’re usually waitlisting, so you have to spend more on the ticket, essentially buying a lottery entry, for the chance of an upgrade.

cathay pacific the pier first class lounge bar hong kong
Cathay Pacific “The Pier” First Class Lounge, Hong Kong

There’s not a lot that JT offers to argue for American over competitors. He concedes American’s operational challenges. International first class lounges are a nice perk, but most passengers don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of this.

American is clearly the better airline for me to fly because their route network works out of my home city (Austin) and their internet works while United’s doesn’t. Beyond that American has largely made a strategic choice not to be better than competitors.

The Case for United Airlines, How Does It Hold?

Zach Honig argues for United because:

  • He lives closest to Newark airport. This is a great reason to fly United, there’s no reason to schlepp out to New York JFK for another carrier’s non-stop flights. This hones in on a key reason to choose an airline – schedule – but is applicable only to people who live near an uncontested United hub.

  • Polaris business class seats. These are better than United’s older generation seats without direct aisle access or any privacy, and United can fit more of the into planes which makes upgrades plausible, the seat itself lags American’s and Delta’s on most aircraft.

  • Polaris lounges are nice and for business class travelers they’re the best going. American bests them for elites traveling internationally (United Global Services won’t even get access flying domestically or international coach). And Zach concedes that the Newark standard club situation is a bad joke, while it’s worth noting that Delta’s standard clubs are better. Clubs overall aren’t a clear winner or differentiator for United.

  • Catering and service is ok indeed United has made catering and service cutbacks in international business and last year even tried to kill meals on many long lunch flights (but relented in the face of criticism). Surely this isn’t a differentiator for United.

  • Inflight wifi has gotten better but still far behind United and Delta.

  • MileagePlus he gets upgrades as a top tier elite (other airline top elites can say the same) and redeems miles on Star Alliance partners. United’s access to award space on Star partners, since that alliance has the most partners, is a differentiator — however most miles aren’t earned through flying and United awards miles based on spend anyway. Anyone with points from a bank-issued transferable points credit card can redeem awards through Star Alliance.

united polaris lounge dining newark
United Polaris Lounge Dining, Newark

The legitimate case Zach makes here is that he lives near Newark and should fly United, and therefore he’ll earn top tier elite status and be treated reasonably well as a top tier elite would be on competitor airlines.

The Case for Delta Air Lines, How Does It Hold?

Scott Mayerowitz argues for Delta because:

  • Operationally reliable more likely to run on time and cancels fewer flights than major competitor. That’s true.

  • More helpful staff while I find telephone customer service agents more clueless than those at other airlines, they can often be more helpful bending rules. On the whole gate agents and flight attendants are somewhat friendlier (though not always so).

  • He lives in New York and Delta offers plenty of choice between New York JFK and New York LaGuardia. Between Zach and Scott we’re centering on a theme, choosing the airline whose service most matches needs.

  • Earn more qualifying miles towards status via credit card than other airlines so while Delta’s top tier Diamond requires more miles (125,000 vs 100,000) than competitors some will find it easier to earn while flying less.

delta sky club austin
Delta Sky Club, Austin

He doesn’t mention the airline’s commitment to seat back entertainment, which sets it apart from the other large U.S. carriers and will matter to some (I always prefer to watch my own entertainment, not even what’s streamed, or to work).

Scott acknowledges the shortcomings of SkyMiles redemptions (best for folks who like short distance coach travel) and availability and flexibility of their confirmed international elite upgrades.

It comes down to SkyMiles being an inferior redemption program, a competitive elite program, and a somewhat better-run airline. Unquestionably someone living in Atlanta or the Upper Midwest should fly Delta.

The Case for Southwest Airlines, How Does It Hold?

Benet Wilson argues for Southwest because:

  • Friendly employees Southwest gate agents and flight attendants don’t seem unhappy to be at work, that makes passengers feel welcome and travel less stressful.

  • Free checked bags helps make the airline a better value.

  • No change fees make it easy to buy Southwest tickets, lock in a good deal, and if you need to change later apply the full value of your purchase to another ticket.

  • Cheap Wifi it isn’t American or Delta quality and reliability, but it’s just $8 per flight. (JetBlue of course offers Wifi free, and other airlines may move to that.)

  • Baltimore non-stops once again where someone lives helps dictate their preference for airline based on schedule options.

I think she misses one of the key selling points of the airline – more legroom. The airline generally offers 32 inches from seat back to seat back, while other major carriers offer as little as 30. That extra space means opening a laptop and working.

Southwest’s ‘cattle car boarding process’ is actually great for last minute business travelers and the airline is more generous with free drinks in standard coach than competitors.

While acknowledging the limitations of the frequent flyer program (no airline partner redemptions) and lack of seat power, Southwest is great for short non-stop flying. I’d prefer to fly someone else for Hawaii, but on flights up to 3 hours I’m happy with Southwest, which is good because they’re the largest carrier at my home airport in Austin (hence I’ve currently got A-List status in addition to American Airlines Executive Platinum).

What the Comparisons Really Mean

SkyMiles is a dumpster fire but you fly Delta when they have the best schedules, and because they’re friendlier and more reliable. Miles from flying don’t matter so much now anyway, just don’t spend on one of their credit cards unless you’re doing it for elite status.

Delta isn’t currently a meaningful option for most of my trips, living, in Austin, even though they’re making it a focus city. Southwest offers the most point-to-point flights, and flying them in non-extra legroom coach is better than flying American, United, or Delta at least on shorter trips.

Choose the airline with the best schedule, where they’re equivalent with the best reliability, and for regular coach comfort go with Southwest. Since I need to work inflight pretty much all the time I prefer American or Delta, United still isn’t an option though if I lived on Staten Island I’d fly out of Newark and sacrifice productivity.

No airline is all things to all people, no airline frequent flyer program among those four carriers is a real differentiator and reason to go out of your way to fly a specific airline, but it’s useful to stick with one carrier and earn status where you can. Your miles will be earned through things other than flying and there flexible points transfer programs are best.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Alaska and JetBlue are possible contenders for a segment of the population. Alaska’s frequent flyer program is the best in terms of earning miles by flying.

  2. Best U.S. Airline ? A Oxymoron to be sure. Our corrupt politicians allowed them to form a oligopoly and we are paying for it.

  3. Depends on where you live, but if you live in a major city where JetBlue or Alaska service those are hands down the best two airlines.

    It’s ridiculous to say “Oh, but AA has the best flagship lounges” – 99% of their fliers can’t access them (and spoiler alert they are always overcrowded.) Most AA fliers have to deal with long lines, poorly run operations (especially at airports like PHL and MIA) , long check in lines, and surly employees. Same with Polaris lounges- they’re awesome, but they’re impossible to access and EWR is a dumpster fire. Hell every east coast UA hub is a dumpster fire. You contrast these messes to JetBlue’s fairly tight operations at BOS/JFK or Alaska’s at SEA/SFO and there’s no comparison.

    And if you’re a flier without status it’s Southwest all the way.

  4. In my (admittedly limited) experience, Delta deserves points for not skimping on seat padding, even in economy.

    I’ve flown them out of OAK a couple times recently, including cross-country, and have been pleasantly surprised that my back wasn’t sore the way it typically get on American and Alaska. (Can’t speak to United on this — I avoid them on principle.)

    Southwest does fine here, too, but with Delta’s seat-back entertainment undoubtedly adding bulk to the seats, they easily could have succumbed to the temptation to create an extra row or 2 via slimmer seats. SkyMiles sucks, but for the occasional trip, it’s not a good enough reason to avoid Delta.

  5. Gary.
    Nice post. I know that you think Delta’s Skymiles is a dumpster fire, but I find occasional redemption deals far exceeding any other USA airlines. For example, my family of 4 flew Boston to Cancun for 14k RT each last April.

  6. “Friendly employees Southwest gate agents and flight attendants don’t seem unhappy to be at work, that makes passengers feel welcome and travel less stressful.”

    This may be statistically true, but not a given. I have good and bad experiences everywhere, and anecdotally my Southwest experiences usually involve cranky Southwest employees (potentially because I only fly them when they are the latest option on the schedule, so end of the day flights lead to more stacked delays, rolling standby customers, etc.)

  7. “Between Zach and Scott we’re centering on a theme, choosing the airline whose service most matches needs.”

    This is really all it boils down to. For a lot of cities, if you do a lot of flying and want to build status, you’re going to choose the dominant airline which will only be 1 (United for me out of DEN). If you live in Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago, you get to shop around, otherwise are you really going to fly Delta with a connection in SLC or MSP every time instead of getting somewhere direct with United? No.

  8. Strengths and weaknesses for each, but, I go with Delta on the margins. Some pros and cons for DL vs UA offhand (haven’t flown AA in a long while since before the merger so I can’t really compare it)

    Delta pros:
    -Excellent customer service
    -Excellent reliability/on time arrivals
    -Amex partnership
    -Best for domestic flying
    -Decent upgrade availability compared to UA
    -Sky Clubs better than United Clubs

    -No intl/Delta One lounges

    United pros:
    -Polaris Lounges
    -Decent customer service
    -Decent reliability

    -Wifi on non-Gogo planes still not up to par reliability wise
    -Lack of upgrade availability (RPU/GPU rarely clearing)
    -Chase partnership/benefits are lacking
    -Tiring/repetitive/and not so good meals in premium cabins
    -Endless cuts to the Polaris soft product
    -UC’s at hubs are always overcrowded with (mostly) bad food

  9. Thanks for weighing in on what we did over at The Points Guy! While we have some Alaska and JetBlue loyalists on our staff – and there’s lots to love about those airlines – but decided to limit this battle to the four largest airlines that carry 80% of passengers.

    Maybe next Gary will do a selfie series in all the coach seats on each airline near the laboratory…

  10. @James Kulpa:

    Hear! Hear! Spot on!

    Now, if only more people realized/accepted this as the reason why a “Race to the Bottom” featuring:

    – successive years of soft & hard product degradations

    – successive years of frequent flyer benefit program devaluations

    – ever more & higher (bs, ripoff) ancillary fees

    – ever more restrictive fares and/or penalties and punishments

    (Just to name a few of the most prominent and odious examples that are part and parcel of oligopolistic business models)

    …we’d be closer to ending the blatant rip offs and sadistic abuses fare paying passengers face every day that this oligopoly remains unchallenged by regulatory bodies here in the USA – and around the world where collusion in the form of price fixing, capacity fixing and scheduling “coordination” by former rivals who then become anti-trust immunized aligned partners (in crime!) when the sit down and carve up markets together while setting prices and coordinating capacity and schedules together.

    Sheesh. Whomever thought that set-up would be good for consumers was/is a bald faced liar!

    “Oligopolies are Great!” – said by NO ONE except the oligopolists and oligarchs who laugh all the way to the bank while they profit handsomely at everyone else’s misery & expense.

  11. The answer is Alaska, but since I live 15 min from OAK now instead of SEA, I matched MVPG over to A-List and only fly out of SFO if I _have_ to. I know AS intends to compete at SFO but I wish they would add destinations from OAK because it is so much less congested.

  12. Also, I keep wanting to try NK ex-OAK but then I find a matching fare on WN or AS or DL and stick with the known quantity.

  13. SWA’s cattle car boarding process, as you call it, is the reason I stay away from them. Uncertainty creates stress in people. I like to know exactly where I will be sitting, I don’t want to spend a half hour jockeying for position, standing in a line, anxiously hoping for something other than middle seat, then darting my eyes around the cabin searching for the best seat. That’s just stressful. I want to board when I want and sit in the seat that I agreed to at the time of purchase. I really don’t understand how people like that process. It may be a great airline other than that, but the boarding process kills it for me.

    For the other 3, the decision depends on if you are going for status, and then if so, what you value with the status. Since my habits make airline status pretty useless, I will go for schedule and price alone on paid domestic flights.

  14. United Pros

    I n

    The only safety video I enjoy tbh.

    Their app is better than AA (I can see the in flight map)

    Economy plus is great.

    Also they strike a blow for the common man by beating up members of the burgosie such as doctors Which is great live entertainment!

  15. The comparison really just validates the decision I made a few years ago. Fly the airline that’s going where you want to go when you want to go for the least amount of money (for the class you want).

    Airline miles and elite programs have been so greatly devalued, that I don’t find them compelling anymore. I mean, sure, I’ll collect and use them, but the days when I’d choose a routing with three stops to get additional segments for status are long gone.

    Sometimes that means I’m sitting in LH biz because they were going where I needed to go. Sometimes it means I’m at the very back of the plane on F9 because I can’t see value in paying $45 for a better seat on an hour flight for a day trip.

  16. Best Airline in the U.S.? The one Richard Branson dreams of starting again here. Everything else is crap.

  17. Reference to United Wifi might need to be corrected in the United “review” section. Just an editorial comment. No need to publish.

  18. I don’t even attempt to determine “best airline overall.” I only think about which is the “best airline for me.” For international, it’s United, because it is the only one of the US3 that flies internationally from Washington DC. No other considerations come into play. For domestic, it’s American unless I’m flying to a United or Delta hub, because American dominates DCA, and that’s my nearest airport. All those other factors discussed in the article don’t matter.

  19. A while back, my hands down pick would have been Virgin America. Alas. Anyway, I pick my US airline based on route and cost. That means I am usually flying United, which as noted, has the best network. However, in quality of experience, UA and AA are not good. Delta is a standout in the experience, but they are just usually not the carrier for where I want to go. Southwest has a fine experience, but does not handle IRROPs well in my experience.

    I also used to appreciate the UA mileageplus program (I am 1K), but it has gotten very watered down.

    Internationally, I avoid UA and AA if I can, flying them only when they have the cheapest business class or an upgrade at booking is available.

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